Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Marielle Heller
Screenwriter:  Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s book “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Cast:  Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella
Screened at: Fox, NYC, 10/4/18
Opens: October 19, 2018

Considering that the FBI could not find enough dirt on a person running for one of our country’s top jobs, it’s a miracle that the organization even bothered to follow a small-time forger like Lee Israel.  Maybe her arrest was all Ms. Israel needed to re-start her writing career, since she finally embraced what every other writer appreciates, which is “Write what you know.”  Though one of her earlier books made the New York Times Best Seller list, she was not obeying that command as she penned biographies of famous people that she may never have met such as Dorothy Kilgallen, Estée Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead. Why anyone wants to spend eight hours or so reading a book about a game show host is beyond me.  Then again, you may indeed want to pick up a copy of Israel’s magnum opus, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?  Memoirs of a Literary forger.”  By definition, Lee Israel was a criminal, but on the other hand, unlike the figure inhabiting the White House, she was a minor felon, and the people she ripped off were so rich that they could afford to buy letters written allegedly by Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich, and Noel Coward.  And if they were never compensated, they could easily suck up the financial losses.

Is Lee Israel a charming person—which, you figure, she’d have to be in order to get away with selling forgeries?  Possibly, but in her role, Melissa McCarthy certainly makes her so.  The actress known for vulgar comedies like Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids,” with her key scene sitting on a sink during a wedding party and using the facility as though it were a toilet.  Starting her career as a stand-up comic, McCarthy gained nationwide fame in the mostly unfunny sit-com “Mike & Molly,” and is now in her most serious role. This is not to say that “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a downer, notwithstanding her character’s regular friendship with the bottle, but mining Lee Israel’s depths, the comic as well as the melodramatic, McCarthy may be able to reserve a berth as Best Actress as awards season rolls around.

Marielle Heller in the director’s seat is known by cinephiles for “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” a teen who in 1970 started an affair with her mother’s boyfriend.  This puts her current work in her métier as a filmmaker who knows how to write women’s roles, and she is backed up by writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty who adapt Lee Israel’s most important and lucrative best-seller.

Though originally a successful writer, Israel finds one bookstore that has marked down one of her writings by 75%, where it languishes in the remnants pile.  She’s broke, not able to afford even a 5th-floor walkup in New York’s Upper West Side with a cat that is old and sick, refused treatment by a vet because of an unpaid balance.  Made up with short hair, large glasses, looking somewhat like the Republican Party’s hire to question Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser, McCarthy has a gift for deadpan humor, which for me is the only kind. (My mother always reminded me that a good comedian never laughs at her own jokes.) Her best gay friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) will ultimately act as her accomplice in crime, supplementing her role in selling forged letters to book sellers who deal with high-end collectors.  To ensure her success in selling off these brief documents by Dorothy Parker and others, she researches the kind of type they used to dash off mail to their friends, picking up ancient typewriters in antique stores and using her talent to emulate the way these personalities would sound on paper.  Able to conclude sales of 400 such documents, she made one mistake that brought the law down on her, but not before she befriended a lonely bookshop owner, Dolly Wells (Anna), who awakened Israel emotionally.

Some felons are awfully charming.  In the role of this woman with larceny in her heart, Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel with understated authenticity, unafraid, or course, to come out with the usual spicy language.  Her fans from TV will want to see her in a serious role, though it’s not too likely that aficionados of sit-coms will have heard of Dorothy Parker and Marlene Dietrich, much less have read a sentence of their writing or  have seen them on the big screen.

106 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s